Clal Sells Sh’ma Magazine to Jewish Activist for a Dollar

How many significant business deals conclude with the buyer handing over a $1 bill and both sides reciting unusual Hebrew blessings?

Not many. But when it came to Yossi Abramowitz purchasing the publication Sh’ma from CLAL: The National Center for Learning and Leadership, that’s how the deal was done.

Abramowitz closed the deal here last Friday by reciting a prayer describing God as the One who can raise the dead, since CLAL, long losing money on the periodical, had planned to shut it down. Rabbi Irwin Kula, president of CLAL, then said a prayer thanking God for being the increaser of wisdom.

Sh’ma is called a magazine but, printed in black ink on eight white pages, looks more like a newsletter. It was created in 1970 by Rabbi Eugene Borowitz as a forum in which Jews with controversial points of view could debate ethical matters as they related to the world at large.

Many articles sparked controversy. In the years immediately after the 1967 Six- Day War it was virtually heretical to criticize Israel, but one article in Sh’ma’s pages said that even if Israel ceased to exist, Judaism would be just fine.

Another piece, which generated more criticism than any other in Sh’ma’s pages, recalled Borowitz, was by a Christian cleric who wrote that his co-religionists were repenting for their role during the Holocaust, and that it was time for the Jewish community to forgive them.

By the time he handed Sh’ma over to CLAL in 1993, the Jewish community had turned to more internal matters, said Borowitz in an interview, and so Sh’ma’s focus followed suit.

In the meantime, with concise but challenging articles, Sh’ma had become “must reading” for the Jewish community’s spiritual and institutional leaders.

Edited by Rabbi Nina Beth Cardin while under CLAL’s auspices, it became a forum for exploring spiritual matters and the nature of Jewish communal life.

There were articles about kavannah, or mindfulness, in worship and in organizational leadership. Other pieces covered the flowering of family foundations and “The Ten Commandments of Voluntarism.”

“We didn’t do reporting, we did reflection. We looked at, `Where’s the me in all of this?’” Cardin said in an interview.

Readership grew slightly from the 5,500 subscriptions Sh’ma had under Borowitz to about 6,500.

Abramowitz hopes to increase circulation significantly.

“Sh’ma will be a neutral and exciting print vehicle through which Jewish leaders and thinkers [can be] inspired to try and tackle some of the tougher issues facing Judaism right now,” said Abramowitz, a 34-year-old activist and publisher.

His main enterprise, under which Sh’ma will now fall, is Jewish Family & Life!, whose central project is a Web site, Jewishfamily.com and 17 others, covering everything from Jewish food to Jewish sports.

“Average Jews turn to Jewish Family & Life! to rejuvenate themselves, their families and their faith. It’s time to help Jewish leaders become inspired change-agents in a community that is tired of its mediocrity and bored by its old ideas.”

Another priority, he said, “is to help the non-Orthodox movements overcome their religious inferiority complex and also to be a bridge to the thinking modern Orthodox world.”

His primary challenge at the moment is to come up with the $100,000 he needs to keep Sh’ma in print.

The first, slated for November distribution, will be devoted to the concept of rebirth — spiritual, institutional and communal — and the second will be devoted to debating school vouchers.

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